Small by National Park standards, the 56.2 square miles of Bryce Canyon National Park occupy the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in south-central Utah. The park is not a canyon. Rather, it is a spectacular series of more than a dozen amphitheaters, each of which is carved at least 1,000 feet into the chromatic limestone of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Bryce is famous for its worldly unique geology, consisting of a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters carved from the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah.
The erosional force of frost-wedging and the dissolving power of rainwater have shaped the colorful limestone rock of the Claron Formation into bizarre shapes including slot canyons, windows, fins, and spires called “hoodoos.” Tinted with colors too numerous and subtle to name, these whimsically arranged rocks create a wondrous landscape of mazes, offering some of the most exciting and memorable walks and hikes imaginable.
Ponderosa pines, high elevation meadows, and fir-spruce forests border the rim of the plateau and abound with wildlife. This area boasts some of the world’s best air quality, offering panoramic views of three states and approaching 200 miles of visibility. This, coupled with the lack of nearby large light sources, creates unparalleled opportunities for stargazing.
The person most responsible for Bryce Canyon becoming a National Park was J. W. Humphrey. Mr. Humphrey was a U. S. Forest Service Supervisor who was transferred to Panguitch, Utah in July 1915. An employee suggested that J. W. view the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. When Humphrey came to the rim, at the point now known as Sunset Point, he was stunned.
“You can perhaps imagine my surprise at the indescribable beauty that greeted us, and it was sundown before I could be dragged from the canyon view. You may be sure that I went back the next morning to see the canyon once more, and to plan in my mind how this attraction could be made accessible to the public.”
J. W. Humphrey had still photographs and movies of the canyon sent to Forest Service officials in Washington D. C. and to officials of the Union Pacific Railroad. Magazine and newspaper articles were written. In 1916, Humphrey secured a $50 appropriation to improve the road and make the rim accessible to automobile traffic.
By 1919, tourists from Salt Lake City were visiting Bryce Canyon. Ruby and Minnie Syrett erected tents and supplied meals for over night guests near Sunset Point. In 1920 the Syretts constructed Tourist’s Rest a 30 by 71 foot lodge, with eight or ten nearby cabins and an open air dance floor. In 1923, the Union Pacific Railroad bought the Tourist’s Rest land, buildings and water rights from the Syretts. Ruby and Minnie established Ruby’s Inn just outside the park.
Gilbert Stanley Underwood was hired by the Union Pacific to design a lodge near Sunset Point. The original main building was finished by May 1925. Additions were made and the final configuration completed by 1927. The standard and deluxe cabins near the lodge were constructed between 1925 and 1929.
President Warren G. Harding proclaimed Bryce Canyon a national monument on June 8, 1923. On June 7, 1924, Congress passed a bill to establish Utah National Park, when all land within the national monument would become the property of the United States. The land was acquired and the name was restored to Bryce Canyon. On February 25, 1928, Bryce Canyon officially became a national park.
The geologic history of Bryce Canyon National Park is rich and complex. Many processes and events have interacted over vast amounts of time to create and continually alter this unique landscape. The story begins long before technicolor hoodoos emerged from this limestone that geologists call the Claron Formation. First, you need to lithify sediments – turn them to rock. Before lithifying sediments, you need to trap them in a basin. To build a basin you need to first build mountains.
Approximately 200 million years ago (Mya), Earth’s crust was crinkling throughout Nevada, into southern Canada. A strong, dense Pacific seafloor had smashed into North America’s weaker continental crust. Much was at stake as the loser would be forced down and melted in Earth’s mantle. Although North America remained on top, it was shattered in the contest. Over the 120 million year match, compressional forces bent, folded, broke, and heaved our crust into the sky, giving birth to the once mighty Sevier Mountains. Given enough time, rain and snow become geologic jackhammers splitting mountains apart. From the mountains, streams and rivers carried debris eastward, pulverizing the boulders to mud in transit.
Slightly before the dinosaurs went extinct, ~ 65 Mya, the land in the Western U.S. changed dramatically. Down but not out, the oceanic plate pushed up our continental crust, stubbornly surfing atop the mantle instead of sinking and melting. This attempt at escaping uplifted land, forming the Rocky Mountains and warping Utah and Arizona. The continued slow uplift shaped a land-locked basin between the Sevier Mountains and the younger Rockies. When the rivers wearing down the Sevier Mountains reached this basin they became braided streams and deposited layers of muds and silts. At the lowest levels, chains of lakes and ponds formed. Water escaped through evaporation, but with no rivers flowing out of the basin, the sediment was trapped. Between 55 and 30 Mya, this mammoth mud puddle, known as the Claron Basin, continued to fill with sediments rich in calcium carbonate – dissolved limestone.
The Claron Formation consists of two types of limestone rock. It has a lower pink member and an upper white member. In the early years of the basin the environment appears to have been more marsh-like, where plant roots helped oxidize iron to give the sediments a red color. Within the pink member, thin and non-continuous grey layers formed, suggesting that individual ponds within this marsh setting became so salty and/or mineralized that only cyanobacteria could survive. These algal-like creatures enriched limestone with magnesium they took from the water to create dolostone – important to hoodoo formation. With the passage of time and an increase in water depth, the basin transitioned into purer lakes where the less iron-rich white limestone was deposited.
Geologists are unsure as to this mud puddle’s fate as rocks that might have recorded this story do not exist. Did it evaporate away? Was it eventually drained as the basin was uplifted? What geologists are sure of is that over time these beds of sediment were compressed into rock and uplifted from 3000 ft to ~9000 ft in elevation. This uplift began about 15 Mya, forming the Colorado Plateau. About 8 Mya, the Bryce Canyon area broke off this uplift as the Paunsaugunt Plateau and has been sinking ever since into the Great Basin.
Technically, Bryce is not a canyon because canyons are primarily carved by flowing water – a stream or a river. Naturally acidic rainwater dissolves limestone, making the rounded edges of hoodoos, but the freezing and thawing of water does most of the sculpting at Bryce Canyon. Approximately 200 days a year, ice and snow melt during the day and refreeze at night. When water becomes ice, it not only gets harder but expands to approximately 110% its original volume! This exerts enormous pressure on the rocks, forcing them apart from inside the cracks. First attacking the fractures created during uplift and faulting, the rock is chiseled into broken remains. Monsoon rains remove this debris, helping to reveal fins, the first step in hoodoo creation. Most commonly, the second step in hoodoo formation begins when frost-wedging cracks the fins, making holes we call windows. When windows collapse they create the rust painted pinnacles we call hoodoos. We often think of this process as hoodoo creation; when, in reality, it’s just another step in water’s endless process of destroying the rocks it began creating 55 Mya.
Although visitors to Bryce come to see the hoodoos in the Claron Formation, five other rock formations also exist in the park. They tell stories of dinosaurs, beaches, and of a sea that once separated North America into two large islands. Ask a ranger to learn Utah region 50 million years ago. Sediment eroded from mountains in northwestern Utah was more about these times in Earth’s history.
Here are just a few popular National Parks Vacations that include a visit to Bryce Canyon. This includes a mix of guided vacations, family trips and driving itineraries where all of the planning and arranging are done for you including maps, guidebooks and detailed driving directions.
Globus Journeys: 7 Night Canyon Country (Family trip)
Insight Vacations: 6 Nights Enchanting Canyonlands
Monograms Vacations: 6 Night Canyon Country Escape (Driving Vacation)
Monograms Vacations: 9 Night Canyon Discovery (Driving Vacation)
Trafalgar Tours: 7 Night Pioneer Adventure (Family trip)
Trafalgar Tours: 7 Night Canyon Country Jamboree (Family trip)
Tauck Tours: 7 Nights America’s Canyonlands
Tauck Tours: 7 Night Red Rocks and Painted Canyons (Family trip)
Hotel: Bryce Canyon Lodge
Bryce Canyon. It is here that delicacy of form unites with brilliancy of color. From sunrise to sunset, the changing scenes pass before you in vivid reds, yellows and purples. Watch as light plays upon rock, immersing you in a dazzling light show. It’s one of Mother Nature’s masterpieces and it’s all yours to explore. Completely renovated to its original rustic 1920s elegance – down to replicas of the lodge’s original hickory furniture – this beautiful “in-the-park” lodge is on the National Historic Register. Western cabins feature gas fireplaces, two double beds and full baths. They are within a short walk to both the rim and the lodge. This quiet and relaxed atmosphere, without televisions, allows the guest to get reacquainted with nature. Fine dining is available in the main lodge. Bryce Canyon Lodge is the only lodging inside Bryce National Park.